Scott Gairdner’s path to creating his own animated series for Comedy Central began simply: on YouTube. As the comedian/filmmaker explains below, the silly videos he posted online were what helped him get the attention of first Funny or Die and then TBS’s “Conan,” which proved to be the springboard that launched “Moonbeam City,” an adult animated series starring the voice of Rob Lowe as an over-the-top cop policing a city animated to look like a 1980s glitter bomb. The cast also features Elizabeth Banks, Kate Mara and Will Forte, who Gairdner took great pleasure in deliberately “fucking with.”
When Indiewire got Gairdner on the phone, one of the first things we discussed was one of his first big viral videos videos, the Michael MacDonald parody “Trickin’ It To the Treats.” “I had that idea of taking it to the streets and being trickin’ it to the treats and being like, ‘Oh, that’s so awful. That’s so corny and stupid,'” he said. “But you know, maybe there’s something to it. Like that’s kind of how I felt, too. Like, is this a fail or is this a great thing?” Our conversation picks up below:
I feel like some of my favorite absurd comedy always treads the line of, “Is this the stupidest thing we’ve ever done or is this actually genius?”
Yeah, I think it’s important to not be afraid of that line. That video was kind of the first time I put the cornier, cheesier side of what I like and who I am in a video. I was like, this is for toddlers, this is not edgy. I was like, “Boy, I wonder if this one will just sink like a stone,” but I hear once in a while that people watch it on Halloween. It taught me the importance of putting yourself out there and being honest, which is paying off in “Moonbeam City.” Because “Moonbeam City” is super silly and absurd and — even when it’s about sex and drugs — it’s like a very dumb, childlike view of sex and drugs. But it seems to be working. People seem to be responding to it so far.
Talk me through what took you from creating web video to Comedy Central. Because I know you’d worked at Funny or Die, and you were working behind the scenes at “Conan” as well?
Yeah, yeah that’s right. Coming out of film school, not wanting to play the pretentious film festival game, in film school I got deeply into sketch comedy, editing and directing it. And by the end of college, YouTube was a thing and so I started posting stuff there and it was kind of a slow, little, steady build. I put up a video when I could and when I had the time, and then I sort of started feeling the drive. The people that were really doing stuff put stuff up constantly, and so I sort of upped the work ethic. I had this month where I was like, “All right, it’s a video every week, and each one has to be better than everything I’ve done before it.”
So I got really driven with the YouTube channel, hoping somebody would notice in some way, and that place ended up being Funny or Die, who were kind of looking for their next generation of writer-director-editors. I did a couple of sketches for their HBO “Funny or Die Presents” show, and then that went really well so they hired me on staff. I was there for two-and-a-half years wearing all kinds of hats: Sometimes you’re an editor, sometimes you’re in the writers’ room, and you’re constantly thrown into scary situations with celebrities you wouldn’t normally talk to, much less direct. At the time, terrifying things with Snoop Dogg and Mike Meyers, and all these crazy people.
But that all kinda steeled me up for when Conan [O’Brien] decided he wanted more of a director type because a lot of their writers are more pure stand-ups and maybe they don’t have or want the skill sets to put sketches together, so they were looking for somebody who came from the online comedy world. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time for that. They liked me, and by that time I had met a lot of celebrities so I wasn’t completely terrified when I had to talk to Conan O’Brien in person — although certainly rather terrified, and still to some extent whenever I see him. So I was a staff writer/director there for a little while.
That whole time, between Funny or Die and “Conan,” I started developing “Moonbeam City,” so it was just very slowly percolating while I left Funny or Die and got with “Conan” for a while. TV development takes forever and animation takes forever, so all these things transpired to make the show take four years from conception to being almost on the air. So I left Conan to do “Moonbeam City” and that’s been the last few years. It’s been super fun.
Yeah. I imagine. How big of a staff are you working with?
On “Moonbeam City?” It’s a huge staff for sure. Between animators and background artists and prop designers and the composition team. But what’s weird for me is a lot of the people working on the show are up in Vancouver or New York or Toronto or these different branches that Titmouse [the animation company] uses. So the core of “Moonbeam City” has been me in a room with like five other people. Which is sort of how I like it. It’s kind of nice to not be corralling 100 people at once, which is how it would be on a film shoot.
“Moonbeam City” has been really fun because we’ve kind of just been in a bunker for a couple years. Really talented people just putting their heads together– I’m talking about them, not me. It’s been surprisingly mellow for being such a big operation, a big Comedy Central show.
I’ve been trying to figure out what the name is for the kind of art design that you’re mimicking. Is there a specific artist who’s driving it?
I just call the whole show retro-futuristic. It’s ’80s fused with forward-thinking, neon-grid, angular architecture. That’s the aesthetic I’ve always really enjoyed. The character design, I just knew it initially as a creepy laundromat near where I live that has these pale, angular people staring at me through the window, which you see at a lot of laundromats and nail salons.
I’ve come to find that it’s mainly associated with this artist Patrick Nagel, who did the Duran Duran “Rio” album cover. But I think some other artists worked in that style too. The sort of pale, angular, dead-eyed art style which really scared me as a child and really stuck with me. I remember being in a house that had one of those paintings and I remember really needing my parents to comfort me after. So the show is some kind of Freudian payoff for me, I don’t know. It scared me when I was little and now I’ve been looking at this kind of art for the last few years. [laughs]
In terms of creating a completely new animated universe from scratch, how key is it to find that visual hook?
I think it’s possible to go the other way, when the show is more like, “Here’s the character dynamic and here are the kind of stories we want to tell,” and, “Well, we can marry it with this kind of art style.” But I definitely went the other way with this. I knew I wanted these crazy angular characters and grids and neon. I wanted it to look like “Tron” and EPCOT. I wanted it to be super purple and pink and blue and teal and what-have-you. That kind of ’80s aesthetic that’s kind of tacky but also kind of cool and intriguing. I kinda wish everything still looked like that today.
I always had that as the goal before we even started working with Titmouse. And it really helped us out a lot because we didn’t have so much of a period of, “What is this and what does it look like?” We knew what we were dealing with and the people at Titmouse were on board with that tone and that aesthetic. And also, it’s just nice to just get started, just get off to the races without being like, “What does this look like?” We got it right away.
And it’s really helped us on the advertising end, making commercials for the show. It’s just such a strong look to use these characters and this kind of art and this kind of logo. Too many triangles, we use a lot of triangles, which we found in ’80s art, even if there’s no reason for it to be. The style’s really guided it very nicely as it’s gone on.
I’m addicted to the theme song, too.
Oh, hey, thank you. That’s an area where we got lucky. There’s a guy named Mark Brooks who directed most of the episodes of the show and he and Emily Kanavanaugh have a band called “Night Club” and when I met with Titmouse they said like, “Oh, there’s a guy here who would love this show, he has a band that is basically exactly the music you’re looking for.” And then I met him and he handed me a sticker of his band which was neon pink on black, and, “Oh, well, that’s it, yeah.” And then I looked up the band and like, “Oh my God, they are already making exactly what I imagined the music being.” And in fact, the theme song is an instrumental version of one of their songs from a few years back. “Night Club,” super rad band.
Going down the mental checklist of things that are really exciting about the show, the voice cast is stellar. I imagine you’re not recording all together.
No, we haven’t been able to, just because we’re all busy. Some of the most talented people in the industry. Everybody’s been separate, but I think we’ve found a way to make it feel fluid. It definitely doesn’t feel like forced interaction or like the people are in totally different rooms across the country. We work really hard at making it blend and making the interactions feel natural even though we’re recording all over the world. Both Kate Mara and Elizabeth Banks were filming in Baton Rouge, they were phoning in from there. We had people in New York, we had Kevin McDonald, my favorite “Kid in the Hall,” calling in from Winnipeg. Peter Serafinowicz, another comedian I love, called in from London. It was an international effort, which made it really fun. But it all blends very well and everybody seems very much on the same page.
In terms of assembling that cast, do you just kind of call them up? Call their agents and say “They can do it in their pajamas, it’ll take 20 minutes, Peter Serafinowicz isn’t busy, right?”
Yeah, pretty much. The lack of time commitment definitely helps. I remember somebody really early on saying, “Reach for the stars with this cast because you’ll be surprised who you get.” Because not only is animation a pretty low-impact timeline, it’s also so fun. Like nobody would not have fun going into a room for 30 minutes and then a year later: “Hey, that cartoon character has my voice.” There’s just something so basic and fun about it. I get to do voices on the show and I feel that way every time. “Oh my God, that drawing is moving and it’s me!” I think it taps into a little kid thing with all these actors, no matter how big of a star you are.
Really, the central piece of it was, “Who’s gonna be Dazzle Novak?” And there were a couple of avenues we thought we could take with that. Do you go with a dramatic guy who plays it more straight and that’s the comedy or do you do a comedian who does the inverse or do you get an ’80s icon, who was huge at the time, for the novelty of that? As we were thinking of all these archetypes we were like, “Well, Rob Lowe is all of those things.” He was huge in the ’80s, but super relevant now, super funny, great in dramatic things, he’s funny in dramatic things, like “Behind the Candelabra.” He’s just amazing and we got very lucky in that he’s a guy who likes to screw around and do fun things that he’s never tried before. Because he’s had such a storied career and he likes to stay busy, he’s like, “Let’s do something fun.” He’s oddly open and experimental for being the level of star he is. I think he’s awesome.
We went out to him like, “That’ll be a fun ‘no’ to get, so we know he saw it.” And he said yes right away. So then, from there it was like, “Do you want to be on this Rob Lowe animated show?” We had this cred going out to everyone else, which really helped us get these other great stars. Because everyone else — Kate Mara, Elizabeth Banks and Will Forte — they’re all super amazing and I’m a huge fan of all of them. I really have to credit Rob for getting on board first and kind of lending some legitimacy to this weird, rambling show.
It seems like kind of a nice departure for him, almost, in terms of other things he’s been playing recently. The perky, optimistic guy on network sitcoms is a pretty far leap from this.
Yeah, that’s true. There’s a lot of range within it. Dazzle has become a lot more multi-faceted. I think all the characters have a little bit. You’ll see as the show goes on. I think the pilot, you kind of prefer the characters to have one note. But I feel like Dazzle has really grown. There’s a big, fun range of what he is. These recording sessions are so fun because they’re really tour-de-forces for Rob. We’ve made him sing a few times, simulate sex all the time, he gets a lot of time to have fun and explore. He takes it seriously, it’s a character for sure, he isn’t just tossing this off. It’s super fun. [laughs]
For the recording process, you have someone reading with him?
Not necessarily. Everybody’s sort of got their own way of doing things. He kind of just likes to read his line a couple of times and go at his own pace. Other people like to interact more. Will Forte is really fun because his character, Rad Cunningham, we’ve come to find how much we love torturing him. He’s just a real magnet for drama, like all these awful things happen to him. He gets trapped in a robotic orca suit while Russian children electrocute him in a tank. He gets shot with a gun that causes diarrhea, all this insanity. [laughs]
So with him, we’ve come to find, like, “Okay, let’s do the take as scripted, you can knock out each line one at a time if you want. But next time, let’s do one where we keep interrupting him and he doesn’t expect it so he like vocally fumbles and hesitates.” We refer to it, definitely, as “fucking with him.” Every scene, we know what it means when we say, “All right, let’s do the script and then let’s fuck with you a little bit.” The sounds he makes when he is uncomfortable, they’re so fun. We really didn’t want to be like a show that was so polished and jokey. There’s so many times like, “Man, that sound that Will Forte makes is so much funnier than all of the jokes we glazed over.” So we’re constantly like, “Let’s get rid of the joke and put in that crazy yell.” [laughs] It really works.
That’s awesome. So how complete is Season 1 right now?
Season 1 is totally finished. It’s been in the can for a couple months, actually. It’s been sitting on a shelf kind of waiting for the after-“South Park” slot, which is certainly worth the wait. It’s a crazy honor to be paired with that. Season 1 is totally done. I’m kind of in the period of trying to forget what all of it is, so that I can enjoy it again as a viewer. If I’m not answering anything right it’s because I’m trying not to remember. [laughs] It’ll be more fun that way. But yeah, we’ve been done for a few months.
Are there notions for Season 2 bouncing around your head?
It’s really come pretty naturally to just be spitting out a lot of Season 2 ideas. Comedy Central has been nice enough to let us write a couple scripts, so it’ll be ready if we get to do more. It is definitely not hard to keep generating ideas for the show because it’s a city you get to explore. You can go anywhere in that city. It’s a real world and we feel like it’s not limited. We could have ideas for many, many seasons. But we’ll see. [laughs] We’ll see how Season 1 does. We’ll do whatever we are lucky enough to do.
Awesome, well, congrats on the show, and good luck with everything.
Thank you, thank you. I hope I gave you enough there. Hope it wasn’t too rambly.
No, it’s worth it just to hear about you fucking around with Will Forte.
I was an encyclopedic fan of his. So, to get to write sketches for him has been super cool. I’ve been fanboying out the whole time.
“Moonbeam City” premieres Wednesday on Comedy Central at 10:30pm.